09 Feb Pistes and perfect views: A ski guide to the Grand Massif, France
Discover the Grand Massif: a ski area that boasts spectacular views, wonderfully varied pistes, cosy chalets and traditional alpine villages. It’s also delightfully quiet compared to some of its neighbours.
In my mind, the best ski areas are those with infinite variety. Long winding runs between snow-dusted trees, super steep pistes that cut a swathe across snowy deserts, charming chalets tucked away between drifts of snow. They’re the ones which encourage you to explore as well as seek thrills.
The Grand Massif is one of those ski areas. Situated just north of the Chamonix valley in the French department of Haute-Savoie, it’s not well-known outside of France. Which of course has it’s advantages. Not only does it offer fantastic skiing, but it’s also quieter than many of its neighbours. You’ll also find your money goes further here, both when it comes to ski passes and accommodation.
I spent a week in the Grand Massif in January 2020 checking out as many of its pistes as I possibly could. And I have to admit, it far exceeded my expectations. The quality of skiing, coupled with the stunning scenery, modern infrastructure and ease of access to the four largest villages made for a memorable trip. That and very tired legs by the end of it.
If you’re planning a trip to the Grand Massif or choosing where to go for your next adventure, read on. Here’s my guide to the Grand Massif ski area – pistes, perfect views and spots to stop on the slopes.
Planning a ski getaway? Check out my FREE printable packing list and recommendations in my complete guide to what to pack for a ski trip
Getting to know the Grand Massif ski area
There are five villages in the Grand Massif ski area; Flaine, Les Carroz, Morillon, Samoëns and Sixt Fer-a-Cheval. With the exception of Sixt, there are easy links between them that makes exploring a breeze.
You’ll find just over 260km of piste here, making the Grand Massif the fourth largest linked ski area in France. And whilst it might not be the best known, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Flaine is the largest resort town and is home to the most pistes. It may not be the most picturesque ski village in the French Alps (think 1960’s brutalist architecture), but stunning views and great skiing more than make up for it. Speedy infrastructure makes it easy to move around and explore the variety of pistes, with no need to cruise around on roads in between.
Want to find out more about Flaine? Read more in A ski week in Flaine: Gateway to the Grand Massif
Les Carroz, Morillon and Samoëns are more traditional villages and sit at a slightly lower altitude. Above all three sits the Tête des Saix, a peak where fast lifts from each of the villages meet. From here, you can ski back down into any of the villages below, or ski across to Flaine. The link to Flaine is easy and open until relatively late, at which point, meandering tree-lined runs will carry you gently home down the mountain.
Sixt Fer-a-Cheval is a little more far-flung. At the far end of the resort, it is only possible to ski into the town from the main ski area from time to time. There’s a handful of pistes in town, but to access the main part of the ski area you’ll want to travel to one of the other villages.
Grand Massif ski passes
Let’s get down to business. To enjoy your time in this part of the Alps you’re going to a need a lift pass that gets you onto the slopes.
There’s a choice of five ski passes in the Grand Massif. It’s worth taking your time to choose which one is right for you as new or younger skiers might want to opt for a discounted option. These cover a smaller area but can save you a few Euros for your hot chocolate fund.
- Beginner. Designed for your first day or two skiing, and for very little ones. This pass covers the nursery slopes in just one of the five resorts.
- Sixt. Covers the handful of slopes in Sixt Fer-a-Cheval. This option can work if your time is very limited or you have little ones.
- Vill4ges and Flaine. These are two separate passes and offer great value for beginners and improving skiers who are less likely to cover the whole ski area in a week. The Flaine pass provides access to around half of the pistes in the Grand Massif, using the lifts in the Flaine valley as far as the Vernant. Vill4ges gives you unlimited use of the pistes in Les Carroz, Morillon and Samoëns as far as Tête des Saix.
- Grand Massif. The big one. Full access to all pistes and lifts in the ski area. This pass is ideal for intermediate and experienced skiers and boarders who want to cover as much ground as possible.
You can book your ski pass in advance through your tour operator, although you may not be able to choose between all five options. Alternatively, book direct online or in-person at one of the ski pass offices when you arrive.
Book your pass in advance, find the latest prices and discover more about the different options on the Grand Massif ski passes website.
The best viewpoints in the Grand Massif
The Grand Massif is undeniably beautiful.
Towards the north of the ski area, views pan out towards Geneva, taking in snow-capped peaks and rolling green hills. It’s varied and unusual, more diverse than many panoramas you’ll find on the piste.
To the south, the horizon is dominated by the magnificent Mont Blanc massif. Striking, stunning and seemingly impenetrable, it punctuates the landscape in the most dramatic way.
And when you head down into the lower valleys, you’ll find yourself amongst dense woodland, where the footprints of the local wildlife dance amongst the trees in the fresh snow.
You’ll find endless places to stop and take in the view, but here are four unmissable ones;
Les Grandes Platières
Probably the most famous viewpoint in the Grand Massif, the top of Les Grandes Platières gondola is popular for good reason. Whilst the new #flaine sign gets plenty of likes on instagram, it’s the view beyond that’s worth the effort of getting here. You face directly towards Mont Blanc, so close you can almost touch it. In the summer, the Mer du Glace faces towards you here, carving its way down the mountainside. At this time of year, it’s all snowy peaks and sharp faces – rugged beauty at it’s best.
Tête des Lindars
Not far from Les Grandes Platières but accessed by the Lindars Nord lift, this is a far quieter but just as rewarding spot. You can see down into the Chamonix valley – to the village of Les Houches to be precise – and across to the smaller peaks and glaciers that cascade down from the peak of Mont Blanc. It’s a good place to check out what some of the pistes look like over in Chamonix, and the red Fred run down from here is a relatively gentle one with great views.
At the top of the Crêtes drag lift in Les Carroz
Yes, the top of a nursery slope may seem an improbable spot to visit.
But we found ourselves here as we looked for a picnic spot one afternoon. To our surprise, we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular views to the north of the Grand Massif. In the centre, Le Môle steals the show. A perfectly pyramidal peak just crowned with snow guides your eye in the direction of Geneva. The landscape is a mixture of piste, peaks and lush valleys, and refreshing contrast to the white blanket of Flaine.
Technically you can’t reach the Tete Pelouse on skis, but do take the Serpentine and then Zeolite pistes to find a stunner at the end of the day. Here you can look down across the Desert Blanc and whole Flaine bowl as the sun slowly starts to sink. If you want to catch last lifts, this is a great option – not only will you be treated to fantastic views on a clear day, your legs will thank you for the gentle ski home from here.
A Grand Massif piste guide
This is what you’re really here for, right?
I can’t possibly wrap up every piste I remember into one post, so instead I’m going to share my highlights. Here are my most memorable runs in the Grand Massif;
For first tracks, you won’t find better than the glorious Mephisto in the Flaine bowl. At the top of the Aup de Veran lift, this wide and easy blue sweeps gracefully down the mountainside to the foot of the slopes. It’s a confidence-builder that even experienced skiers will enjoy thanks to the views across the valley.
If you’d like a complete change of scenery, head over to Les Chars at the top of the Sairon lift in Morillon. A gentle run that meanders between the sugar-coated trees, it feels more like Narnia than the French Alps here. Les Chars is one of the longest blue runs in the ski area and is gently undulating. Novice skiers won’t feel overwhelmed here, and faster ones can swoop by (with plenty of room) should they wish to.
Two of my favourite pistes to get the legs working can be found in Morillon. Bergin starts by L’Igloo, one of the nicest chalets we found in the ski area. A red piste that’s occasionally closed for Ski Club use, it’s steep and sweeping, and fast and fun. Dashing between the trees, it won’t take you long to complete and conveniently brings you to a lift that takes you right back up to the start. I recommend polishing off a chocolate viennois at L’Igloo before heading down again.
Chamois is another cracker. One of the faster ways to reach Les Carroz, it’ll get the blood pumping before exploring the more gentile pistes below.
For intermediate skiers happy to tackle plenty of reds, the bowl-shaped valley of Flaine is sheer perfection. Here you’ll find endless combinations of red and blue runs crisscrossing the valley sides. Whether you love a steep a swift, wide and inviting or even ungroomed, you’ll find runs to fall in love with.
Almandine was a personal favourite, a long run that starts wide and rolling, then narrows and gets steeper as heads down towards the treeline. Diablotin, which disappears off from the side of Mephisto, has a similar profile and is enjoyably quiet. Lastly, Belzebuth is an easier red that descends in the Desert Blanc. It appears to only be groomed every few days (during the winter of 2019/20) providing just enough challenge to make it memorable.
The quietest spots
To find places all to yourself, it’s best to head to the fringes of the ski area. Explore the area around the Aujon and Grand Grenier lifts on the far side of Flaine. They’re gentle drag lifts, but don’t let this put you off. You’ll find inviting slopes to dash down, and a new view into the valley.
The lower altitude runs into the villages of Les Carroz, Morillon and Samoëns tend to remain uncrowded during the middle of the day. Skiing here is a chance to enjoy the forest around you and take life at a slower pace.
Seeking out a challenge
There is plenty to explore in the Grand Massif for thrill-seekers. As with anywhere, there are off-piste opportunities to be discovered. But there’s also a surprising number of ungroomed runs that keep the challenges coming. You’ll find several at the top of the Desert Blanc lift. We tackled the Lucifer which was packed with moguls given the warm conditions we were experiencing – you might find something completely different during your stay. It more than exhausted our legs, but it was great to give something different a go.
There’s also a couple of ungroomed blacks towards Les Carroz. But if you want some more ambitious but pisted, check out the Aigle Noir at the top of the Chariande Express. This black run was groomed when we visited – steep but fun, fast and furious.
Eating and drinking on the slopes of the Grand Massif
There’s a number of places to eat and drink on the slopes, with a cluster around the foot the slopes in Flaine Forum. But our absolute favourite was a little further away – L’Igloo at the top of the Bergin piste in Morillon. This little chalet not only has terrace views that’ll blow you away it’s also home to the best hot chocolate we found all week. It’s easy to access from a green run, and the menu du jour sounded mouthwatering each time we visited.
In classic French style, you’ll also find an abundance of picnic areas scattered across the pistes. We love to prepare our own lunches with local ingredients and bring them with us for the day. Some of our favourite picnic spots included;
- The top of Les Grandes Platières lift. You could come here just for the scenery. Or better still, help yourself from the stack of deckchairs and settle down to bask in the sun whilst you demolish your baguette.
- The top of the Crêtes lift in Le Carroz. Fabulous panoramic views to the north of the Grand Massif in a quieter spot, and a fun set of rollers on the piste below (intended for beginners but a good laugh after lunch).
- The top of the Corblanche lift. This welcoming seating area offers views of Mont Blanc and of nearby runs
The Grand Massif might not be the biggest, or the highest, or the best-known ski area in France. But at the end of the day, it’s this that makes it special. You’ll find white deserts blanketed with snow. Meander amongst deep green firs on your way into alpine villages. Discover spectacular and unexpected views – and striking architecture you didn’t expect either.
This part of Haute-Savoie is quietly confident. It knows that it’s traditional hospitality, varied skiing and stunning landscape lures those in the know.
If you’re looking for something a little quieter than the big brash resorts, but don’t want to comprise on quality, then you’ll love the Grand Massif.